Making Archaeology for Everyone

A person sorting through broken archaeological pottery.
Meg Gaillard, SCDNR

Written by Gabi Daniels, SCDNR Archaeology Intern, 2023.

When you initially hear the term ‘archaeologist’ you may think of brave adventurers wielding whips and big hats working to uncovering ancient artifacts made of gold and precious gemstones. However, this common misconception is often a by-product of popular media and a lacking educational structure for archaeology and anthropology in our schools.

So, how do we go about trying to eliminate this misunderstanding? Public archaeology! During my six-week internship with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Archaeology team, I became well acquainted with the idea of public archaeology and how the future of our field relies on it.

Public archaeology refers to the outreach and education of archaeology to the general population. Archaeology at its fundamental level is for people, as everything we unearth and interpret weaves a larger tapestry of human history. This directly coincides with how we all understand our own heritages and how we understand people who have a different background than we do. By educating the public to archaeology and how it can be significant to their own lives, we can give a voice to histories which have been lost to time and facilitate an environment of open dialogue about our pasts.

Often, though, this can be a rather daunting task. Archaeology is full of jargon, data, and scientific processes that are not simple to understand unless you are another PhD in the field. This, however, makes public archaeology even more vital! Knowledge of community members is fundamental when interpreting sites and artifacts. It is important for us to break down these barriers with public archaeology to make our work more accessible.

But how exactly do you engage the public with archaeology? Well, luckily for us, there are just about an endless number of opportunities!

SCDNR archaeologist Lelia Rice introduced my cohort of interns to how public archaeology can be utilized with students and young children. She initially began the demonstration of her work with an activity called ‘Pottery Re-fit’ which tasked children with decorating a small garden pot, smashing it, and meticulously piecing it back together with Elmer’s glue just like an archaeologist might.

Activities such as this one engages a student by allowing them to be creative but also introduces them to how an archaeologist would think—letting them become a mini archaeologist! As I decorated my own pot during the exercise, I found myself appreciating the work and craftsmanship of potters and the patience of archaeologists even more than I had before.

Furthermore, I also volunteered one day to participate in the agency’s engagement program for children in which we handed out mini excavation units. These units consisted of crumbly plaster blocks with one or two sherds of pottery inside. It was wonderful to work with the children as they (somewhat) carefully dug away at the plaster and pulled out sherds. From there, we encouraged them to imagine how the different pieces might have fit together and what kind of vessel it may have come from. This activity sparked a lot of questions as well as excitement, and it was wonderful to be able to see the parents and guardians light up just as much as the kids! I was especially exhilarated by how the kids would theorize whether or not they had discovered a piece of a bowl or cup.

Hopefully, as public archaeology is entering the spotlight more than ever now, we can all continue working to engage the public and create a better environment for people to be involved in their own histories and the histories of the global population through material culture.

This story originally appeared on the South Carolina Wild blog.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.